Image: iStock/Daniel Chetroni

As a long-time consultant, what I’m about to say may well be regarded as blasphemy in many circles, especially as I’ve delivered countless projects where the end result was a roadmap of some sort. While nearly every client request I get includes a roadmap as its primary outcome, I’ve spent the last several years talking my clients out of roadmaps. Much like it would be foolhardy to waste time meticulously planning a route to climb Mt. Everest if you don’t own crampons and get winded walking around the block, so, too, is most of the investment in multi-year roadmaps money that’s essentially wasted.

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Why roadmaps rarely make sense

There are two fundamental reasons that roadmaps are usually useless. First off, they presume that some entity can accurately predict the future. While I don’t see many requests for ten-year roadmaps these days, three- to six-year roadmaps are not uncommon. I’ve worked for some of the best consulting firms, and with some of the best companies on the planet, and I have yet to meet anyone who can consistently and accurately predict the future a few weeks out, let alone several years out. Consider for a moment how many 18-month roadmaps penned in 2019 proved valuable and relevant in 2020.

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The second fundamental flaw of roadmaps is that they often contain grand plans without justifying the reason for their existence. These plans often contain large (and expensive) systems implementations, a flaw that is compounded by their multi-year nature. Most roadmaps end up as “shelfware,” their hundreds of pages of PowerPoint, project plans, and Excel models assuming that a company is ready to spend tens of millions of dollars on initiatives for reasons that have only been vaguely articulated, and are not all that interesting to anyone outside those who funded creating the roadmap in the first place.

Continuing our Mt. Everest analogy above, imagine presenting complex plans for training and logistics, alongside a massive price tag for equipment and travel, to someone who’s not expressed any significant interest in climbing the mountain.

A better way to plan for the long-term

Roadmaps generally are not the right tool for planning long-term technology investments and are usually premature in that they include specific, detailed plans for a destination that the company writ large is not yet convinced is the right one. Too many technology leaders make the mistake that even well-intentioned language about anything from digital transformation to artificial intelligence (AI) from fellow executives means multi-million-dollar investments are imminent.

Rather than jumping to roadmaps as your company becomes open to more technology investment, seek to understand how that interest in technology is impacting the company’s strategy. With this understanding, you can begin to articulate the capabilities that will be required to execute on that vision. If your CEO has stated her objective is to “Use digital to build a closer relationship to customers,” you’ll likely end up with shelfware if your immediate response is to present a three-year $80M roadmap for customer, content, and commerce systems. However, if you engage in discussions about what that rather broad statement actually means, you can build the case that the company will need new capabilities to understand, service, and transact with customers.

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You can build further support for the need for these capabilities by piloting various aspects of this new relationship with customers, or by performing customer research, activities that are more fruitful investments than a complex roadmap. With support for new capabilities affirmed, the execution aspect and price tags become mere details; you now have someone convinced they want to climb the metaphorical mountain, and they’re already mentally ready to invest the effort with the price and plans becoming mere details.

This distinction may seem subtle, but you’ve shifted the discussion from “Wow, that sure seems expensive,” to “Here’s how we can help quickly acquire the capabilities to enable your vision.” While starting with capabilities may seem like a longer process, you’ll ultimately prevent sticker shock and a high risk of shelfware, while also elevating IT’s position as a purveyor of strategic capabilities, rather than an expensive and risky investment.